In the footsteps of those who fell

Former NSWNA president Jennifer Collins visited the grave of the only nurse buried at the end of the Kokoda Track.

IMG_0191Overlooking the Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea (PNG) is a memorial to all the Australians and Papua New Guineans who fought, and those who died, on the Kokoda Track in 1942.

It was here that former NSWNA President Jennifer Collins (pictured), now deputy commissioner for the Department of Veteran Affairs, gave a rousing tribute to all those Australians who have fallen while answering the call of duty, at a dawn service in April.

“Isurava is the site of one of the most desperate battles in our military history,” Jennifer said during her speech that day. “Those who fought along this track helped prevent the capture of Port Moresby at a dark time in our military history.

“In doing so, under terrible conditions and while mastering the demands of jungle warfare, they reinforced the legacy given to us by their comrades in other conflicts and other battles: the fine example of what can be achieved by courage and endurance, by mateship and sacrifice.”

Isurava was the site of some on the most intense fighting in the Kokoda campaign and four black granite pillars, built by Department of Veterans Affairs in 2002, stand to commemorate that moment in time. Jennifer told The Lamp that the pillars are inscribed with the words COURAGE, MATESHIP, ENDURANCE and SACRIFICE, to represent the values and qualities of those men from Australia and PNG who fought and died along the Kokoda.

“It was a very moving experience and just as dawn broke, the Ode was read and the last post was played into the still and quite dawn. It was a very surreal moment and one that will remain with me forever,” Jennifer recalled.

Although Jennifer prepared herself for the trek on the Kokoda Track, she and 250 other trekkers were met with harsh and unpredictable conditions on the day.

“The trek to Isurava from Kokoda is about 10 kilometres and due to rain, mud and landslides it took about 12 hours instead of five,” the former NSWNA president explained. “It was the hardest physical trek I have ever done and even though I trained by walking up 40 flights of stairs every day and walking 10 kilometres every weekend, it does test your strength and mental health.”

Jennifer also visited the grave of nurse Marie Craig, who died after the crash of a medical evacuation flight, attempting to bring wounded diggers home from the battlefields of Morotai, near Borneo, just weeks after the war had ended.

During World War II air evacuation became a quick and effective way to transport seriously wounded troops from the front line in New Guinea and the surrounding islands, back to base hospitals in Australia.

In early 1944, 15 nurses from the Royal Australian Air Force Nursing Service were recruited to the newly formed No. 1 Medical Air Evacuation Transport Unit (1 MAETU).

Nicknamed “The Flying Angels”, they were trained in in-flight medicine and care, emergency survival procedures, and tropical hygiene. Flight teams comprising a sister and an orderly flew in Douglas C47s carrying up to 18 stretcher cases at a time. Within the first year of operation some 8000 patients were evacuated.

“The only female on board that fatal flight was Marie Eileen Craig,” Jennifer told The Lamp.

“She, along with the other 28 on board, is buried at Bomana War Cemetery.”